Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Doing Better Next Time: Senate Recommendations

The Senate committee charged with investigating the national response to Hurricane Katrina assigned blame at all levels, describing the relief effort as one plagued by “failures in design, implementation, and execution of the National Response Plan.” UNITED STATES SENATE, COMMITTEE ON HOMELAND SECURITY AND GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS, HURRICANE KATRINA: A NATION STILL UNPREPARED 27-1 (2006).
a. Insufficient training and exercises. The NRP “is a complex, ambitious, 400-plus-page high-level plan,” a “very detailed, acronym-heavy document that is not easily accessible to the first-time user.” Beyond an initial wave of training for headquarters staff of the Department’s component agencies, DHS evidently made no further efforts to “ensur[e] that the NRP would be well implemented.”
b. The roles of the principal federal official and the federal coordinating officer. The NRP’s failure to “define the role of the PFO or distinguish it from that of the FCO” posed “an obstacle to an effective, coordinated response to Katrina.”
c. Potentially overlapping agency roles. The NRP “fail[ed] to delineate areas of potentially overlapping responsibility among federal agencies.” For instance, the NRP assigned responsibility for public health and medical services, to the Department of Health and Human Services, even though one of the resonse mechanisms, the National Disaster Medical System, answers to FEMA and DHS. Consequently, “[i]n the response to Katrina, FEMA and HHS engaged in minimal coordination on pre-positioning and deploying Disaster Medical Assistance Teams.”
d. Contingency and catastrophic planning. As “a high-level plan, with a core set of principles meant to apply to a wide range of possible events,” the NRP “was not designed to address specific scenarios or geographic areas, or to provide operational details.” The Plan simply failed to “‘contemplate’ an event on the massive scale of Katrina.”
e. Mistakes in declaring an Incident of National Significance. According to the NRP, “every event that provokes a Presidential declaration under the Stafford Act automatically becomes an incident of National Significance.” President Bush’s August 27, 2005, emergency declaration for portions of Louisiana automatically transformed Hurricane Katrina into an Incident of National Significance. Nevertheless, three days later, Secretary of Homeland Security Chertoff issued another “declaration” designating Katrina an Incident of National Significance. “At minimum, the Secretary’s redundant declaration of an Incident of National Significance confused an already difficult situation and suggested a lack of familiarity with core concepts of the NRP within the Secretary’s Office.”
f. The appointment of Michael Brown as Principal Federal Official. Apart from questions over the wisdom of appointing Brown, “who had no experience as an emergency manager,” Secretary Chertoff’s appointment of FEMA Director Michael Brown as PFO for Katrina “violated the literal requirements of the NRP.” The NRP prohibits the PFO “from occupying another position or having another set of conflicting or distracting obligations at the same time.”
g. Non-implementation of the Catastrophic Incident Annex. “In failing to implement the National Response Plan’s Catastrophic Incident Annex (NRP-CIA), Secretary Chertoff ignored a potentially powerful tool that might have alleviated difficulties in the federal response to Katrina.” In contrast with the standard response to “a ‘typical’ disaster,” which directs the federal government to wait until a state requests aid, the activation of the NRP-CIA during a catastrophe “prompts the government to help without waiting for requests.”


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